Neil Tomkins’ landscape painting did not appeal to me at first sight, and my initial judgement was quite derogatory. I tripped into the common trap, which is widely described as indifference. It is an ordinary mistake that reminds me of art’s encouragement to cross the fringe of preconception in order to engage with the unknown.
Like the German collector Christian Boros (1964) who once said he only collects what is difficult, because this very circumstance keeps the acquired work fresh. With this in mind I engaged with Tomkins’ paintings and was gradually immersed in his mesmerising landscapes.
I dwelled in shimmering colour fields, which are constructed with partially translucent washes and my gaze followed what I perceived as intuitive gestures. Tomkins’ painting process feels immediate and unapologetic. He layers paint, rubs it back and paints over again in order to break up space, and to render instant shapes.
His methodology occurs as a perpetual de- and reconstruction of an observed landscape that transformed to an engendered topography of self. It unveils Tomkins’ emotions and visceral feelings in order to assimilate both, his observations but also his immediate act of painting. It seems he is a diehard painter with paint flowing in his veins and it is questionable whether his choice of wet paint is helplessly romantic or utterly precise.
The drawing hand is possibly the most immediate gesture of the artist’s working mind. It can instantly articulate an observation or idea. In my view it is irrelevant whether the tool is a pencil or brush, the immediacy and physicality of the process matters. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61) argued in the context of his phenomenological theory, the study of human pre-lingual, visceral perception and consciousness, that the artist experiences the world and self through the act of painting. It could be described as thriving impulse of the body that directs the brush to leave traces, which are then projected on the back of the artist’s retina.
Human beings are an integral part of the world, a shadow-casting object among shadow-casting objects, made of the same flesh as Merleau-Ponty argued, and it is open to answer who looks at whom. Artists who look at their own work therefore are also looking at them self. For this reason a critical look is of utter importance for the artist’s development, and Tomkins sometimes looks at his work for days. His observation of self becomes as integral to the creative act as the act of making, which is often short and intense.
Tomkins’ iconography extends from impression to expression and juxtaposes mimetic detail with objectless abstraction. He frequently combines the formality of broken-up shapes with the painterly shimmering light of glistening colour fields in his pictures. Piet Mondrian’s (1872–1942) landscape paintings from the first decade of the twentieth century come to mind, which are loosely painted observations from nature that are full of emotional energy. They could be seen as one of the starting points of Mondrian’s passage towards abstraction and like him, Tomkins seems to be working through a similar transition. His pictures aim for conceptual openness, away from descriptive recordings towards free flowing forms and colours. He expresses his emotions but shares authorship with viewers to see their own picture.
After all, the engagement with Tomkins pictures has once again reassured me that painting is not about taste, like or dislike, it is rather about the act of seeing. Viewers see the being of the artist, but also see themself. It is their engagement with ideas, and good ideas are always offering something new.